NATIONAL TOP 25
(Note: This is not a talent ranking of how good these teams are, but rather a look at how they'll perform against their remaining schedules and where they'll be ranked on January 5.)
I know, I know - how can I not put them number one? I don't think they're necessarily the strongest team in the country; it's just that it's hard to see them losing to anyone on their schedule. Of the top teams, they've got the easiest path by far to an undefeated season, especially now that the trip to Cal looks less imposing. The question marks are a defense that lost four of its front seven from last year and the off-season turnover of six members of their staff.
2. Virginia Tech
Their Sunday night win at NC State could easily be an ACC title game preview, especially considering the way Florida State and Miami played on Monday night. Those two Florida schools received a lot more hype in the off-season, but Virginia Tech is the defending ACC champion and has all the trappings of a national title-caliber team: great defense, line play and a playmaker on offense.
Boise State isn't that talented of a squad, especially defensively, but D.J. Shockley really shined in that contest, and the defense proved it hasn't lost its touch despite a new defensive coordinator. Until proven otherwise, they have to be considered the SEC favorites.
4. Ohio State
Flying under the national radar is the Bucks' solid performance against a Miami (Ohio) squad that has been a legitimate Top 25 programs in several recent years. Even if the Buckeyes get past Texas this weekend, they may have a tougher conference road than earlier expected: the Big Ten is a cumulative 10-0 to date.
When a visit from Oregon State is the toughest game on the schedule, just about any team in this Top 25 would have a strong shot at a perfect season. Then again, that Cardinals defense looked shaky in allowing 24 to Kentucky on Sunday.
The Longhorns did everything asked of them in a 60-3 pasting against ULL. The talent on this squad, especially on the lines, virtually ensures they don't lose more than two games this season. That Oklahoma match up suddenly isn't as scary, either. Nonetheless, because Vince Young's Rose Bowl heroics are the last memory voters have of this team, they're still overrated at #2.
The Wolverines should probably be lower, but this is partially a "schedule pick" with Notre Dame and Ohio State at home and Purdue off the slate. Like Texas, Big Blue is overrated and overhyped because of a plethora of skill position talent relative to the talent on defense. Coming off its lowest sack total in years, the defensive line in particular looked weak against Northern Illinois, as senior defensive tackle Gabe Watson once again appears to be falling short of preseason expectations. Sophomore quarterback Chad Henne needs to start looking off receivers, but did display great accuracy and timing to the point where he's probably the top quarterback in the conference right now. After only one fumble in all 2004, sophomore running back Michael Hart could improve even more with true freshman phenom Kevin Grady sharing much of the workload.
Gator backers are used to hanging 70 on the out-of-conference foes, but there is no shame in hitting less than half of that against a bowl-worthy Wyoming team. After a tune-up against Louisiana Tech, the real test for Chris Leak and company comes the week after when Tennessee comes calling.
In a watered-down Big 12, Texas is the only Top 20 opponent on the Sooners' schedule. Come up with another win over the Horns and the Sooners can cruise through the rest of the games on talent alone. Of course, that's what the world thought would happen against TCU. Right now though, there's nowhere for this team to go but up, especially if one assumes the offense will inevitably work out their kinks. Keep in mind that the Sooners have been embarrassed plenty in the recent past, both by losing to inferior opponents (consecutive losses to Oklahoma State) or by getting blown out (last year's title game, the 35-7 Big 12 Championship loss to Kansas State) and have always recovered just fine. The sky's not falling: this Oklahoma team is a shoe-in for another 10-win season.
With 19 returning starters from last year, and no Ohio State or Michigan on the schedule, this team could easily be hoisting some heavy hardware come January. However, the Boilers have never quite been able to get over the proverbial hump under Joe Tiller.
One has to wonder how much all the hurricane-related turmoil will hamper this squad. The quarterback play is also a major question.
12. Florida State
Hey Seminoles, the monkey's finally off your back. Maybe this bodes well for Texas against Oklahoma.
A weak pass defense and that SEC East schedule are keeping them this low.
Eek. Freshman quarterback Nate Longshore is gone for the season, and JUCO transfer junior Joe Ayoob's 0-10 performance let the world see why Longshore beat him out for the starting job in the first place. Still, Marshawn Lynch, a dynamo offensive line, and an above-average defense should carry this team to a New Year's Day bowl at a minimum.
16. North Carolina State
For my money, this is the most underrated team in the country right now. They lost by just four to a similarly underrated Virginia Tech team, and simply return nearly all the key players from what formed the best rush defense in the country last year.
Hard to complain about poor special teams play against Florida State considering the series history. Miami-Florida State games have been ugly in years past when both teams would rally to end in the Top 10, but it's going to be a lot harder for the Canes in the new ACC.
18. Notre Dame
The Irish displayed a great rushing attack and a great rush defense against Pittsburgh, but Tyler Palko lit that secondary up like a jack-o-lantern. Not good news considering the strong passing teams left on the schedule.
The Hawks lose all four starters off a defensive line that was the heart and soul of the team's success the past few seasons; quarterback Drew Tate has not consistently played at a high level; and who exactly is this team's running back? Still, Kirk Ferentz is the best in the business at getting the most out of his talent, and his available talent has sharply increased in the past few years.
20. West Virginia
Playing in the Big East helps a lot for a squad that gets both Virginia Tech and Louisville at home. After playing great defense (and notching a key fourth quarter safety) in a win at Syracuse, the remaining road schedule reads Maryland, South Florida, Rutgers and Cincinnati. If the offense comes around with time, perhaps all the hype showered upon the Mountaineers last season will have come a year too early.
Is this squad a 2004 Utah? No Top 25 teams remain on the schedule, so if this team wins out, that "W" at Oklahoma is going to be mighty hard for the BCS to ignore. Though Oklahoma's quarterbacks couldn't exploit their weak secondary, here's betting someone else on the schedule does before it's all said and done.
Maybe this is finally the year Tommy Bowden breaks into the Top 15? Good win against Texas A&M to start the season, and with Florida State and Miami suddenly looking not all that great (and both at home), the divisional title could come down to a Thursday night showdown at NC State.
24. Texas Tech
One of the few teams yet to kick off play, the Red Raiders could capitalize on a Big 12 that looks weaker than in years past. The out-of-conference schedule of Florida International, Sam Houston and Indiana State would make even Kansas State proud, and Texas and Oklahoma are the only two ranked teams on the schedule. If only that defense could stop anybody, this season could get much bigger in a hurry.
25. Boston College
It's a bit of a stretch, but no one else cries out for this slot. Somehow they were only favored by 4.5 at BYU. They won 20-3 and could conceivably escape that brutal ACC schedule with just two or three losses, as Miami is off the schedule and Florida State and Virginia come to Chestnut Hill.
This week's honorary 26. Stanford
A la Steve Spurrier starting the season with a vote for Duke, a man has to be true to his roots. Win the first couple, and maybe the Cardinal slide into this poll on merit alone.
RAMBLINGS 'ROUND THE COUNTRY
I know it's just the beginning of the season and the kinks have to be worked out, but still, does anyone remember so many quarterbacks at top schools looking so out of place? Oklahoma, Florida State, Miami and Cal are just four of the more prominent programs to experience major signal-calling pain on week one. Teams with a hot quarterback (see: USC, Michigan, Georgia and Texas) have a big advantage against many of their opponents at the moment.
In part because of poor quarterbacking, this year looks a lot more wide open than years previous, especially if you're not a USC believer. (I'm not sold.) A lot of powers are looking down (not to beat up on Florida State, Miami and Oklahoma, but that means you) in what's shaping up to be wide-open season. Could we see a two-loss team in the Rose Bowl?
At #16/18 in the polls, Oklahoma is WAY underrated right now. Yes, they are down from years past, but with a new quarterback now at the helm, win out and the national title is still a possibility.
BIG GAMES ON TAP
Ohio State/Texas – Texas has some great lines but those Buckeye linebackers are going to eliminate the scrambling ability of Vince Young. He still hasn't shown he can win a game with his arm. This game and the Oklahoma contest might be the only ones where he has to. I like Ohio State easily. Ohio State 27-13.
Michigan/Notre Dame – Sophomore running back Darius Walker will explode for about 150 against a defensive line that can't seem to make the big play. Too bad for the Irish that Chad Henne will pass for about 350 against a secondary that has proven its inability to make the big play. The line's a touchdown, and that seems just right. Michigan 31-24.
Arizona State/LSU – On overall talent, LSU is a better team, but games aren't won and lost on talent alone. Arizona State has three marked advantages: 1) the disruption of LSU's routines by Hurricane Katrina, 2) the cancellation of LSU's contest versus North Texas, meaning they opening the season against the Sun Devils, and 3) the relocation of the game to Tempe. Arizona State hung over 60 on Temple, and while they won't score that many this week, they should get enough. In an upset, Arizona State 27-17.
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